The Incorruptibles

A Novel

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Napoli, Italia, 27 September 1943

ENZO Schlomo was running the wrong way.
There were, it seemed to him, indiscriminate explosions and a barrage of machine gun fire coming from all directions. But mostly they were coming from in front of him. An explosion behind him on Via Duomo propelled him forward, against his fear and his will.

quattro-giorni-di-napoli

The Four Days of Naples – September 27- 30, 1943

He summoned all his courage and turned to run the other way. Enzo heard cries from here and there—sometimes in German, sometimes in Italian. He could not quite make them out. Gun bursts continued from his left and right. He could smell smoke and almost taste it. He was stung in the ankle sharply with the splintering of stone in the street—no doubt from a ricocheting bullet. But he ran forward, almost blindly.

Then, he could make out the façade of the Duomo di Napoli, his destination, about a block in front of him and to the right. Via Duomo ran in front of the Cathedral and was tightly crowded with buildings—but the Cathedral’s stately façade was discernable even in the falling light and the explosions. It gave him hope. Napoli had been in turmoil for days. The Italian resistance, though unorganized, seemed to be making a kind of chaotic progress. The Germans had issued orders. Their Italian collaborators echoed their own. Curfew. No guns. Report to certain sectors (if you were an able-bodied man between 18 and 30 years of age).

It was rumored that a group of Neapolitan children in one sector, with the help of a single Allied Soldier (Enzo had not heard of what nationality) had successfully defeated a German unit. There was hope. It was a hope that propelled Enzo: If the children are willing to die for the city, then I am willing to die for St. Gennaro, he thought. He was just a half a block away. The saint’s bones. His miraculous blood. His head. If Enzo could see himself through the Cathedral doors, perhaps he too could be a hero.

Enzo had converted, much to the shame of his parents (once they found out), from the Jewish to the Catholic faith when he was 10, in 1933, after he had witnessed the “miracle of the Blood,” a thrice yearly spectacle in Naples that he’d heard about for as long as he’d had memory but had been barred from attending. But on September 19th, 1933, he’d lied to his mother about where he was going and had gone to the city to see if what the Catholic Neapolitans said about St. Gennaro was true. The priests processed the reliquary into the Church and many ritual prayers, which Enzo did not understand, were recited by the congregation, led by the Archbishop and his phalanx of priests and deacons. The prayers were in a mixture of Latin and Italian. Enzo did not understand the Latin because it was Latin; he did not understand the Italian because he was not Catholic.

It seemed hours for the ceremony. Enzo was hot but excited. Everyone seemed to anticipate a great event. But at the end of the prayers, the Archbishop, who held the reliquary, turned it upside down and showed the congregation that the blood was still solid. It was encased in silver which held a kind of spherical flat glass globe attached to a glass tube which, in turn, was suspended by a golden rope around the Archbishop’s neck. Enzo guessed the rope was to ensure that if the reliquary was dropped, it would not fall to the ground and break. The Archbishop lifted up the holy object again to show that the coagulated blood was still solid. Then he continued to walk around the altar as the congregation prayed, periodically pausing to lift up the reliquary, twisting it, almost ritually, before the expectant crowd.

Then. Something happened.
The Archbishop turned the sacred object and the congregation gasped. The coagulated blood began to bubble and flow from the spherical globe into the tube. Enzo himself witnessed it. There was no mistaking it. It was like a child’s chemistry experiment: the solid brown mass changed to a discernible bright red and trickled naturally into the tube below the globe. The Archbishop said, “Il miracolo è avvenuto,” –“The miracle has happened.”

Enzo did not know how such information could have been communicated so quickly to the Castel Nuovo, but, momentarily there rang a twenty-one gun salute from what Enzo guessed was at least a few kilometers away. He remembered those booms from his youth, when he’d ask his parents, “What does that mean?” They’d say, “It means the Catholics are superstitious. Pay no mind.” But he had paid mind.

From the moment he witnessed the miracle, Enzo was a Catholic and went to the Archbishop himself (a man named Alessio Ascalasi) to ask him urgently for baptism and confirmation and to express his fervent desire to be a Holy Priest of Jesus Christ. The Archbishop was puzzled and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, since he’d simply showed up at the Archbishop’s residence and asked to speak with him personally. The Archbishop was a man of faith. Mindful of the miracles that perhaps had been missed by the Church in the past, he had admitted the boy. He examined him and made inquiries regarding the family but finally baptized him himself one day, in a very casual affair, telling him that he must, despite his conversion, continue to honor and take care of his parents. After all, the Archbishop reminded Enzo,that was a commandment for Jews and Christians alike, no matter anyone’s conversion. Enzo agreed and resolved to become a priest only after his parents had passed away. They would never agree with it otherwise. They would need to be in the presence of God Himself to go along, Enzo reasoned. In the meantime, he secretly volunteered at the Duomo in whatever capacity he might. And he did help. Sweeping. Carrying out the garbage. Serving at Mass (when he could get there in time without his parents knowing what he was really doing). And he’d done all of this until he was 16 and the second Great War had come.

But his parents were now dead (as a matter of God’s good grace, he told himself), before the outbreak of the War, so he only had two things on his mind: St. Gennaro’s blood and his own ordination. He had not really been through anything like Seminary while his parents lived, but the kindly Archbishop had taken his cause and assured him that he would, someday, be ordained. But, at the moment, his fervent hope was that he could make it to the Duomo before everything blew up. The Saint’s blood had liquefied on September 19th, his feast day, but because of the war in the city, the procession to the Monastery of Santa Chiara was cancelled and the miracle had occurred right in the Duomo, where the blood was stored under lock and key. The Archbishop had barred anyone from witnessing it, save a few priests and deacons at the Cathedral. Enzo had discovered a few days after that the liquefied blood had been left on the altar in the Baptistery Chapel and was to remain there so long as it remained liquefied. The Archbishop had stationed deacons and priests on watch night and day to ensure that the reliquary was not damaged by the war. So far, the Germans and the Italian Fascists had not attacked the Duomo directly. Enzo had seized this day to attempt to go to the Duomo because a city-wide uprising had thrown everything into chaos and Enzo worried that the watchers might have deserted their posts.

He made it to the two central front doors of the Cathedral and found them locked tight. He pulled on them a few times, but they were fast from the inside.
Enzo ran to the right as more explosions spit smoke and dust and rock spittle that stung his body. He tried one of the side doors there—it gave way. When he entered, he realized that it had been blown from its hinges but remained erect. He pushed it to, so that from the outside, it would appear to be shut.

It was quiet inside. A flickering glow emanated through the windows above the main altar, keeping the Lady of the Assumption completely in silhouette. But Enzo needed to get to the Baptistery, where St. Gennaro’s relics were maintained. The reliquary would be on the main altar within the small Chapel, which was to the right of the nave, separated by a bronze grille. The bust of St. Gennaro—a silver and gold replica of the saint’s visage commissioned by Charles the Second in 1305, and dressed in cope and mitre—stood with the tabernacle behind that altar, in view of the reliquary on the altar before it. The replica encased the holy Saint’s head, which had been taken from him during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was the cause of the saint’s martyrdom. The Saint’s bones were buried in a crypt below the Chapel altar. From where he stood, Enzo could not see if the ampoule with the blood was on the altar.

He took a few steps. Enzo was amazed to see in the dim light the reliquary still in its place in the Baptistery. Even from where he stood, the blood still looked bright red and liquid. But where was the watcher? “War is a funny thing,” Enzo thought. There ought to be a watcher. Even if men’s wars have nothing to do with what is really important to man.

As he passed through the gate, he saw the body. It was that of a deacon. He looked as if he was curled asleep before the altar. He looked peaceful. Enzo could not bring himself to look to see if he knew him.
Stepping around the body, Enzo wrapped his hands in the extra material of his tunic and picked up the ampoule from the middle of the altar. He paused, knelt down, and touched the reliquary to the dead man’s shoulder, praying for the repose of his soul. He saw then that the man had taken a piece of marble or stone or shrapnel to his temple. The wound was quite small, but apparently lethal. Enzo stood back up and looked out of the Chapel. He had the sensation that he was committing a sin. He was so ashamed that he enfolded the sacred object into his tunic and wrapped it away at his stomach and turned to find his way back out, holding the reliquary with one hand against his midriff as he did so. He imagined that the object felt warm. The gun-bursts and bomb-blasts from outside made themselves heard again. His fear returned. At the rail separating the Chapel from the main sanctuary, he turned and looked to the bust of St. Gennaro for reassurance. It stared blankly. Enzo whispered, “St. Gennaro, intercede for my protection,” and turned and ran through the sanctuary.

In the dark, he found his way back to the door through which he’d come, crossing himself before the attempt to open it. He paused and found the golden rope attached to the reliquary and carefully slung it around his neck. He took a deep breath and slipped back through the door.

All was momentarily quiet. He started to move toward the dull light that indicated the Via Duomo. Suddenly, there was a figure in front of him. It was crouched and moving at first but then stopped and, seeming to erect itself fully, said, “Wer bist du? Stopp!” Enzo froze and tried to make himself in the slim shadow a part of the wall. But the figure strode forward and grabbed him roughly. Enzo was hauled out into the street where he saw German soldiers. They all looked at him; his tunic gathered in the fist of the German Officer who’d captured him. “Eine Italienische insekt,” the officer said, pulling Enzo up so that his legs dangled. “Was haben sie da?” he said. With that, he grabbed the reliquary from beneath the folds of Enzo’s tunic. Someone said, “It looks important.” Enzo was thrown to the ground while the officer looked more intently at the reliquary. Someone strode between the officer and Enzo, who was now on his back, looking up. The German soldier looked at the officer and said, “Was zu tun ist?” There was no answer.

Enzo watched as the German soldier unholstered the pistol on his hip and pointed it at him. Enzo saw the flash from the muzzle very near his eyes and felt a momentary intense concussion that was not merely the exploding of the front of his head from the outside, but the bursting of his eardrums from the inside. His last feeling was something of remorse, since he had been made to give up the comfort of the miraculous blood of St. Gennaro. He thought, Pray for me, Mother Mary. The last thing that occurred to him was a question: Could blood not merely baptize a man, but ordain him a priest as well? He hoped. Then, nothing.
#

Yale University, Thursday, 4 September 2014,
New Haven, Connecticut

Male voice: “THAT’s the surprising part. He didn’t.”
Female voice: “He didn’t take it?”
“No.”
“What did he do?”
“He put it back on the altar, apparently.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, almost.”
“And?”
“There was a crack.”
“A crack?”
“In the ampoule. The reliquary. The container.”
“When was it discovered?”
“Oh, sometime after the war was over.”
“Did they fix it?”
“Of course they fixed it. Well, not the Germans. They wanted the crack to be discovered. Church officials discovered and repaired it, I think. And the miracles have continued since.”
“Yeah. ‘Miracles.’”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
“Heh.”
“Here’s the thing.”
“What?”
“They took some of the blood. The Germans. Took some of the blood. It was liquefied that night. I think they broke the ampoule and secreted some of the blood and took it back to Germany. Then they replaced the reliquary on the altar so that the city and Church officials in Naples would believe that the breakage was due to the war. It has been reputed for a long time that after liquefaction, the volume of material in the ampoule varies. So, the Germans believed the Holy See and the Archbishop would assume the damage was from the violence of war and nothing else. Which, if you think about it, is true. And it worked.”
“So? What for?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know—to prove that miracles don’t really happen??”
“No.”
“Then, what?”
“To prove that they do…”

2 Responses to "The Incorruptibles"

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